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Don't trim inspection of meat - beef it up
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published October 7, 2007
At least 30 people, including a Florida teenager, have gotten seriously ill after eating ground beef patties tainted with E. coli bacteria, and 10 have been hospitalized. It's a shame so many people had to risk their health just for the pleasure of eating a hamburger, but the timing of the outbreak could save others from the same fate if Congress will muster some courage.
When this latest food scare finally went public last month, lawmakers were considering a farm bill that would have actually weakened existing meat inspection regulations. Now they should realize they have to do more, not less, to protect American consumers from dangerous food.
Neither the company that produced the frozen hamburger patties nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture acted responsibly in this latest food recall, which - at 21-million pounds of ground beef - is one of the largest ever. Topps Meat Co. of New Jersey was aware on Aug. 30 that someone had gotten sick after eating one of its products. Yet Topps didn't tell USDA officials until Sept. 7, and the government agency waited until Sept. 25 to announce the recall. (Facing lawsuits, Topps announced Friday it is going out of business immediately.)
The USDA apologized for its delayed response but offered no good reason for waiting. "There is room for improvement," said Dr. David Goldman of the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
No kidding. In the days it took the USDA to act, the health of many more people was put at risk. With massive health scares in the past few years from contaminated produce, meat and imported products, it appears the nation's food-safety inspection system is broken. So it is hard to believe that a bill pending in Congress was going to let some meat producers substitute state inspection for federal oversight.
After the latest meat recall, some lawmakers woke up. "Allowing uneven and lax state standards to replace a uniform federal standard is not appropriate," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
That's a starting point, except the tainted Topps meat came from a federally inspected plant. So Congress' duty should be clear: Take some of the billions of dollars spent on unneeded farm subsidies and put the money into food inspection. And do it before somebody else gets sick or dies.